News & Politics

The Most Powerful Women in Washington

The Most Powerful Women in Washington
Michelle Howard, vice chief of naval operations, is the first female four-star admiral in the Navy's history. Photograph by Susana Raab.

It’s no surprise that Washington produces, attracts, and rewards smart women. What is surprising is the number of new women in power positions since Washingtonian’s last list of most powerful women in 2013.

This year, we salute the first female four-star admiral, applaud the first woman to head the Kennedy Center, and look for breaking news from a cadre of women in key positions at new-media outlets such as Vox and BuzzFeed.

What makes all of the women on our list powerful? They define the agenda and determine the course of action in their enterprises. They’re not necessarily members of Congress, for example, but could be the staffers who steer congressional action.

Over the past six months, we talked to dozens of area leaders to put together this list of more than 100 of Washington’s most powerful women. The roster reflects the many spheres where women now hold sway, in both the public and private sectors as well as in the arts, science, and community service.

powerful women in dc

Arts and Letters


Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop

The BSO plays a third of its concerts at Strathmore in North Bethesda. Alsop also brings classical programs to Montgomery County schoolkids.


President and CEO, Washington Performing Arts

Jenny Bilfield

Bilfield fills local stages with artists of all music and dance genres, and concert venues rely on this longtime presenting organization to keep them in the black.


Directors, Smithsonian Museums

Elizabeth Broun, Melissa Chiu, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Kim Sajet

Broun heads the American Art Museum, including the Renwick Gallery. Chiu is Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, hired to bring new donors to a beleaguered museum still deflated by the “inflatable roof” fiasco. Cole, a former President of Spelman College, is in charge of the National Museum of African Art. Sajet runs the National Portrait Gallery, one of the Smithsonian’s gems.


Executive Director and CEO, Sixth & I

Esther Safran Foer

Foer has turned the reborn historic synagogue into a, um, cultural mecca. Recent speakers included Salman Rushdie, Mindy Kaling, and Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer.


President, Strathmore

Monica Jeffries Hazangeles

Hazangeles runs the largest and most productive venue for performing arts in Maryland, with 260 shows annually attracting 250,000 patrons. More than 1,000 students also take classes there.


Director, Phillips Collection

Dorothy Kosinski

Kosinski has preserved and expanded Washington’s premier private museum, attracting major gifts to add to the Phillips family’s legacy.


President, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Deborah Rutter

The first woman to head the Kennedy Center, Rutter recently announced a major expansion, including three pavilions on the south plaza and a pedestrian bridge connecting to the Potomac River waterfront.


Artistic Director, Arena Stage

Molly Smith

Smith led Arena through a dramatic recreation of its space and an expansion of its mission. She produces more works by women and minority playwrights than many other professional theaters and attracts the most diverse audiences in town.

powerful women in dc
Checks and balance: Nicky Goren leads the Meyer Foundation, which each year gives more than $7 million to nonprofits helping the poor. Photograph by Susana Raab.

Advocacy, Philanthropy, and Nonprofits


President and CEO, United Way of the National Capital Area

Rosie Allen-Herring

Former managing Director of the community-investment-and-engagement division at Fannie Mae, Allen-Herring is the turnaround artist the charity needed.


President, CityBridge Foundation

Katherine Bradley

CityBridge invests in programs to improve DC schools. Bradley also chairs the Washington regional board of Teach for America.


CEO, Case Foundation

Jean Case

A onetime senior executive at AOL, Case promotes the use of technology to assist nonprofits as well as an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy.


Executive Director, Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

Rose Ann Cleveland

In the past ten years, the foundation has awarded $214 million to nearly 950 organizations in the Washington area.


President and CEO, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation

Nicky Goren

Goren spent four years as President of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation before being selected to head the Meyer Foundation last year.


President, Catalogue for Philanthropy, Greater Washington

Barbara Harman

Harman’s guide is a trusted source for funding often-overlooked small charities.


President, NARAL Pro Choice America

Ilyse Hogue

Since 2013, Hogue has led national and state efforts to combat restrictions on abortion rights.


President and CEO, Voto Latino

Maria Teresa Kumar

Conventional wisdom is that you can’t win the White House without the Latino vote.


President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Mee Moua

Moua heads a leading nonprofit advocating for Asian-Americans on immigration and other issues.


President and CEO, National Council of La Raza

Janet Murguía

Murguía leads one of the largest advocacy organizations dedicated to Hispanic civil rights.


Chairman and CEO, Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation

Catherine Reynolds

Reynolds’s foundation has donated $100 million to the Kennedy Center and millions more to other beneficiaries in the performing arts as well as education and community service.


President and CEO, New America

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” reignited the debate on work/life balance, and she has expanded her argument in a new book, Unfinished Business.


President and CEO, Martha’s Table

Patty Stonesifer

Stonesifer, who previously headed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Smithsonian Board of Regents, has a multimillion-dollar address book.


President, Center for American Progress

Neera Tanden

Tanden took over from John Podesta in 2011 and now oversees the progressive policy-research and advocacy think tank.


Business, Labor, and Lobbying


General Manager, IBM US Federal Government

Anne Altman

Altman heads IBM’s efforts to upgrade government IT to meet growing border- and homeland-security needs.


Founder and CEO, WashingtonFirst Bank

Shaza L. Andersen

Andersen’s institution has grown to $1.5 billion in assets and 17 branches in Virginia, Maryland, and DC.


President and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association

Pamela Bailey

Bailey is involved in all major food-labeling issues.


President and CEO, CTIA-The Wireless Association

Meredith Attwell Baker

A veteran telecommunications executive, Baker is a former commissioner of the FCC.


Vice President, Amazon Web Services

Teresa Carlson

Carlson’s company has 1,500 federal-government customers.


Head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs, Dropbox

Amber Cottle

Cottle was previously Democratic staff Director for the Senate Finance Committee.


Vice President for Government Affairs and Policy, General Electric

Nancy Dorn

According to the Atlantic magazine, between 2007 and 2012, GE secured more than $16 billion worth of federal contracts.


Top Political Lobbyists

Juleanna Glover and Heather Podesta

Glover is a top lobbyist with strong Republican ties. Podesta is a top lobbyist with strong Democratic ties. Politically polar opposites, both are hot hired guns.


President and CEO, Haddad Media

Tammy Haddad

The woman to see if you want to get booked on TV, quoted in the media, or invited to the top parties in town.


Executive Vice President of Finance and Global Treasurer, Marriott International

Carolyn Handlon

Handlon leads Marriott’s corporate-finance organization, overseeing the financial health and strategy of the $14-billion company.


President, Service Employees International Union

Mary Kay Henry

Henry is one of the leaders in the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage campaign, expanding her efforts beyond the union’s membership.


President and CEO, Lockheed Martin

Marillyn Hewson

Hewson just scored a major sole-source contract to build a combat-management system for future Navy frigates.


US Government, Regulatory-Affairs, and Public-Policy Leader for PwC

Laura Cox Kaplan

Kaplan also holds the purse strings on the firm’s political-action committee.


President and CEO, American Public Power Association

Sue Kelly

APPA represents 2,000 community-owned electric utilities, serving more than 48 million people.


President and CEO, Northern Virginia Technology Council

Bobbie Greene Kilberg

Kilberg is godmother of NoVa’s tech community.


Chef/Owner, Ris Restaurant

Ris Lacoste

Lacoste is a judge for Launch Pad, a competition to identify and launch promising new culinary concepts at DC’s Union Market.


Senior Vice President of Federal-Government Affairs, Comcast Corporation

Melissa Maxfield

Maxfield, a former staffer for senators Tom Daschle and Bob Kerrey, oversees all political activity for the $69-billion company.


Executive Vice President for Global Public Policy, Time Warner

Carol Melton

She was the top lobbyist for Viacom and advised the Chairman of the FCC.


Vice President of Public Policy and Government Relations for the Americas, Google

Susan Molinari

The former congresswoman from New York represents one of the biggest-ticket lobbying shops—Google reportedly spent more than $5 million in the first quarter of 2015.


President and CEO, American Beverage Association

Susan K. Neely

Neely’s claim to fame: She got Coke and Pepsi to work together on consumer initiatives.


Chairman and CEO, General Dynamics

Phebe Novakovic

Despite defense cuts, GD has had strong profit growth under Novakovic’s leadership.


Government-and-Politics Outreach Manager, Facebook

Crystal Patterson

Patterson is a social-media wizard who’ll be in high demand during the 2016 campaigns.


Chef/Owner, Restaurant Nora

Nora Pouillon

Pouillon, who recently released a memoir, My Organic Life, is a longtime driving force behind the movement toward more organic, environmentally conscious cuisine.


Founder and CEO, Rand Construction Corporation

Linda Rabbitt

Rabbitt is a former board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and is working with Harvard Business School on a program to prepare more women to sit on corporate boards.


President, Forest City Washington

Deborah Ratner Salzberg

Salzberg heads the real-estate-development effort for a 48-acre mixed-use project near Nationals Park.


President and CEO, National Restaurant Association

Dawn Sweeney

Sweeney advocates for the industry as it deals with restaurant-wage mandates and other critical issues.

powerful women in dc
Head of the class: As President of Montgomery College, DeRionne Pollard runs an institution that enrolls nearly 60,000 students. Photograph by Susana Raab.



Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Sidwell Friends School

Frankie Brown

Brown is gatekeeper at the private school favored by power parents such as the Clintons and the Obamas.


President, Prince George’s Community College

Charlene Dukes

With more than 44,000 students at six locations, PGCC is also home to the National CyberWatch Center.


Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Karen Garza

She has successfully negotiated later start times for high-schoolers and eliminated half-day Mondays for elementary kids.


Chancellor, DC Public Schools

Kaya Henderson

Henderson has managed to close some underutilized schools, raise test scores, and win the confidence of more District parents.


President, Trinity Washington University

Patricia McGuire

Trinity attracts students of all backgrounds and ages—though 95 percent of its undergraduates are women—with classes on the main campus in Northeast DC and in Anacostia.


President, Montgomery County School Board

Patricia O’Neill

O’Neill presides over a system looking for a permanent superintendent and coping with a rapidly changing school population.


President, Montgomery College

DeRionne Pollard

Pollard heads one of Maryland’s largest community colleges, with nearly 60,000 students. The new Bioscience Education Center in Germantown represents an $87.9-million investment in STEM education and workforce development.

Health and Medicine


Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, MedStar Health

M. Joy Drass

Drass oversees ten hospitals in the Washington-Baltimore area.


Senior Vice President of the Office of Policy and Representation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association

Alissa Fox

The top lobbyist for one of the nation’s largest health insurers.


Directors, National Institutes of Health

Patricia Grady, Martha Somerman, and Nora Volkow

Grady (who heads the National Institute of Nursing Research), Somerman (head of the Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research), and Volkow (who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse) oversee major research on important medical issues including brain science and disease predictors.


President, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States

Kim Horn

Under Horn’s leadership, the HMO has standardized electronic record-keeping and wellness care.


CEO, American Red Cross in the National Capital Region

Linda Mathes

Mathes is on the case every time a family is dislocated by fire, flood, or other disaster. She manages the local blood supply and is key to the region’s disaster-preparedness.

International Powers


Wife of Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US

Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah

The newest goodwill ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency, she’s known locally for her philanthropy and her ability to gather A-listers at her version of the Davos conference.


Ambassador from Jordan

Alia Hatoug Bouran

She holds a key diplomatic post, representing one of the critical US allies in the fight against ISIS.


President and CEO, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Jane Harman

Harman gained her foreign-policy cred after nine terms representing her California district in Congress and serving on all the major security committees.


Managing Director, International Monetary Fund

Christine Lagarde

The head of one of the most powerful economic institutions in the world, Lagarde leads with a calming voice amid global economic uncertainty.

powerful women in dc
Law and order: Therese Pritchard, chair of Bryan Cave, is one of the few women to head a major international law firm. Photograph by Susana Raab.



Partner, Arnold & Porter

Lisa S. Blatt

Blatt holds the record for the most cases argued by a female attorney before the US Supreme Court.


Director, DC Public Defender Service

Avis Buchanan

Director since 2004, Buchanan last year received the Presidents’ Award for Public Service from the Washington Council of Lawyers.


Managing Partner, Crowell & Moring

Ellen Dwyer

The expert in labor law spearheaded a program to develop and retain more women and minorities at the firm. Fewer than 5 percent of the country’s law firms have a woman as firm-wide managing partner.


Associate Justices, US Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor

The three “Supremes” have been key to majority decisions upholding the Affordable Care Act and supporting marriage equality.


US Attorney General

Loretta Lynch

Since her Senate confirmation in April, Lynch has been front and center on critical civil-rights issues, such as the Freddie Gray case, and has brought down the corrupt leadership of the international soccer federation, FIFA.


judges, US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit

Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard

They both faced an uphill battle, caught in a political crossfire in the Senate over changing filibuster rules, but Millett and Pillard were confirmed in 2013 to the second-most important court in the land.


Chairman, Bryan Cave

Therese Pritchard

The litigator is one of the few women to head a major international law firm.

Local Public Powers


Mayor of DC

Muriel Bowser

Her Honor has her hands full with longstanding problems such as homelessness, a broken EMS system, and still-troubled schools.


Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors

Sharon Bulova

Bulova, who gets credit for the Silver Line, has no strong opponents in the upcoming county election.


US Congresswoman

Barbara Comstock

This Republican from Virginia will be a key player in GOP plans to turn her state from purple to red in 2016.


US Congresswoman

Donna Edwards

If the Maryland Democrat wins her Senate campaign, she’ll be the first African-American woman to represent the state in that chamber.


Virginia State Senator

Janet Howell

The Democrat serves on the key Senate budget committee protecting Northern Virginia’s interests. She also stands up to the Republican majority: When another senator proposed that an ultrasound be required before every abortion, Howell added a rider that every man be required to have a rectal exam before getting a prescription for erectile-dysfunction medication.


Chief of Police, Metropolitan Police Department

Cathy Lanier

Rising homicide rates threaten Lanier’s status as the most popular official in the District.


DC delegate to Congress

Eleanor Holmes Norton

A conservative Republican House won’t give an inch on expanded home rule for the District, but for 25 years DC residents have sent Norton back to the Hill to keep trying.



Vice President of Growth and Analytics, Vox Media

Melissa Bell

Bell and Ezra Klein left the Washington Post to start In August, NBCUniversal made a $200-million equity investment in Vox Media.


General Manager, WRC-TV

Jackie Bradford

The NBC station leads its rivals in local news.


Washington Bureau Chief, New York Times

Elisabeth Bumiller

The former White House and Pentagon reporter took over the bureau in early September.


Editor, Politico

Susan Glasser

The former editor of Foreign Policy was the founder of Politico’s long-form magazine.


Reporter, BuzzFeed

Rosie Gray

Gray is one of the new girls on the bus transforming Presidential-campaign coverage.


Executive Director of Emerging News Markets, Washington Post

Cory Haik

She has shared three Pulitzers as a print journalist, but now Haik is shaking things up at the Post’s emerging platforms.


President and CEO, PBS

Paula Kerger

The woman who brought Downton Abbey to the US has also forged many digital partnerships, increased the network’s online video portals, expanded resources for teachers and classrooms, and picked up dozens of broadcasting awards.


Chief Operating Officer, Politico

Kim Kingsley

In 2006, Kingsley joined Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris at Politico’s inception. She now directs its multi-platform operations.


Chairman and CEO, BET Networks

Debra L. Lee

BET, a unit of Viacom, is the leading provider of entertainment targeted at African-Americans.


President and CEO, Tegna

Gracia Martore

When Gannett split up, Martore’s company got the lucrative broadcast stations and the digital-media operation.


Senior Director of Content and News, WAMU 88.5

Andi McDaniel

McDaniel joined WAMU in August to oversee news and talk programming, develop new content, and redefine the station on-air and online.


Washington Bureau Chief, Bloomberg News

Megan Murphy

Murphy was lured from the Financial Times.


Radio Talk-Show Host, WAMU

Diane Rehm

Rehm attracts A-list authors and opinion leaders to her nationally syndicated program.


Executive Editor, CNN Politics

Rachel Smolkin

As head of CNN’s digital coverage, Smolkin will have a strong voice in the network’s 2016 coverage.


Co-President and Co-CEO, C-SPAN

Susan Swain

Swain oversees programming for C-SPAN’s three TV channels and its radio feed.

National Powers


White House Social Secretary

Deesha Dyer

Dyer proved her social savvy overseeing major back-to-back events for the pope and the President of China. She’s got a hand on the most coveted guest lists in town.


Vice Chief of Naval Operations

Admiral Michelle Howard

The first female four-star admiral in the Navy’s history, Howard is no paper-pusher—she was the first African-American woman to command a ship, and she led squadrons of elite fighters before coming to the Pentagon.


Senior Adviser to the President

Valerie Jarrett

Officially, Jarrett oversees the White House offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs as well as chairing the White House Council on Women and Girls. Unofficially, “the Obama whisperer” has the chief executive’s ear and his back.


Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Army

Lieutenant General Mary Legere

As the Army’s senior intelligence officer, she’s in charge of the readiness, modernization, and development of the 58,000 soldiers and civilians in the military intelligence corps.


Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Gina McCarthy

Despite Republican opposition, McCarthy keeps pushing the EPA forward—including tough new rules on clean water.


Adviser to Hillary Clinton

Cheryl Mills

Mills was deputy White House counsel for Bill Clinton and now serves as a top strategist for Hillary’s Presidential campaign.


Homeland-Security and Counterterrorism Adviser to the President

Lisa Monaco

Monaco also oversees the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center.


First Lady

Michelle Obama

Her campaigns for healthy eating, exercise, and helping military families have won her more fans than her husband has.


Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Arati Prabhakar

DARPA is key to keeping a smaller armed forces effective through better technology.


National-Security Adviser

Susan Rice

Rice laid the groundwork for President Xi Jinping’s September visit at a time of China’s economic setbacks and increased military belligerence.


Director, National Reconnaissance Office

Betty Sapp

Sapp is the intelligence community’s eye in the sky.


US Chief Technology Officer

Megan Smith

The former Google Vice President came east to promote technology innovation and advance smarter tech policies.


Chair, Securities and Exchange Commission

Mary Jo White

The SEC recently issued a rule mandating that public companies disclose the pay ratio of CEOs to the median of its employees.


Chair of the Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System

Janet Yellen

When Yellen speaks, stock markets rise or fall.

On the Hill


US Senator

Kelly Ayotte

The Republican from New Hampshire is a vocal member of the Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Budget committees. She may be on the shortlist for a vice-Presidential nomination.


US Senator

Susan Collins

The Maine Republican has emerged as a major dealmaker in the divided Senate.


US Senator

Barbara Mikulski

Maryland’s retiring senator will be fighting for the state to get a bigger piece of the federal pie until the day she departs. Two of the three finalist sites for the new FBI headquarters are in Prince George’s County.


Minority Leader, US House of Representatives

Nancy Pelosi

With the majority often battling itself, Pelosi has been able to wield considerable power by keeping her Democratic caucus together. That’s how the California congresswoman managed to preserve funding for the Department of Homeland Security.


US Representative from Washington State

Cathy McMorris Rodgers

As chair of the House Republican Conference, Rodgers is the highest-ranking woman in the Republican leadership.


Senior Adviser and Digital Director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

Kat Skiles

National Journal reports that Skiles is the social-media guru for House Democrats.


Chief of Staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Sharon Soderstrom

After three decades working for Republicans in Congress, Soderstrom is now McConnell’s right hand and the highest-ranking female staffer on the Hill.


US Senator

Elizabeth Warren

Warren seems to wield more influence by not running for President. For example, the Massachusetts Democrat has kept the SEC’s feet to the fire on banking and investment regulations.



Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde

Budde is the first female bishop in the diocese, which includes the area’s most famous church, Washington National Cathedral. She has been a vocal supporter of the Episcopal Church’s sanctioning of same-sex marriage.


This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.